When we’re hungry, we can gain insights our overall physical and mental state by the foods we crave: Sugary and sweet stress salves or crunchy salty protein reinforcements, our hungers reveal our deficiencies, real or perceived. Our tastes in entertainment, our fickle fiction hungers for games and other media, are little different, and can be similarly revealing.
I’ve just had a falling out with a game I’ve played nearly every day for the past year or so. This isn’t the first time this has happened, either in general or with this particular game – but it’s interesting, once I pull that plug, seeing the shape of the hole it leaves behind. It’s interesting feeling the cravings that I begin to develop in its absence, and begin to wonder at what they might mean about myself – and, furthermore, what the massive popularity of certain games and genres might mean about what we crave as a society.
I miss the feeling of mastery that competitive games offer, and this is something that concerns me slightly. Just as the readiness of my response to the easy creativity of building games like Minecraft revealed my frustrations with my own creative process – and the ways in which that process felt unfulfilling and artificial – I’m forced now to wonder: what exactly does it mean to me when my efforts at mastering art, music, and programming, fields that produce actual works which can be appreciated by other human beings, feel so ethereal and insignificant compared to blowing up a stranger in a video game?
It may just be a matter of rapid feedback. It takes a long time to develop a game, to compose an album, even, relatively speaking, to complete a drawing. Even disregarding the production time, the results of my effort take time to reach their intended audience, sometimes just a few minutes, but sometimes hours and days and weeks, sometimes months. Certainly, at any rate, much slower than a cartoon rocket, which reaches its intended recipient within a second or two.
It’s also a matter, I suspect, of the clarity of the feedback. You can have all your friends tell you that something you’ve made is brilliant and still suspect, somewhere deep inside, that they’re just trying to be nice, or that their judgment is clouded by their friendship – but that dude you shot with your rocket gun definitely blew up, and there are little bits of him still rolling around. The contract the game makes with you is that if you take the time to get good at it, it will reward your skill with an increased chance of victory – something we prefer to believe is paralleled by other forms of mastery, but which all but the most successful of us find little concrete evidence of. Indeed, it was a perceived violation of this contract that made me stop playing the game… but I digress.
These are the thoughts which occupy me in my idle moments, now, moments which I’d probably otherwise be using to play this game. It leads to another line of thought, though: These mobile games, these miniscule and monetized, micro-transacted and unprincipled skinner boxes, why is it that they’re so successful? What is the hunger that they feed, and where did it come from? Is it the need for steady progress? Is it the need to feel rooted in, and established in, a world, no matter how inconsequential that world might be?
Or is it, as with me, a need to exert a kind of mastery? Is it the need to believe that our money, meager as it may be in the grand scheme of things, is enough to make a real difference in some kind of world? Is it a desire to know that all the hard work we put in every day, even if it makes no visible difference, still has an impact somewhere, sure as a cartoon rocket?
What is it you’re hungry for?